6 months ago

Florida city unconstitutionally authorizes public trespassing

By Christina M. Martin Attorney
The Chmielewski family’s one-story home

In recent years, many local and state governments have used crafty methods to take access to private beaches without first paying for the right. Governments have imposed easements on private land, declared private land public, declared a right of custom where none existed, and attempted to expand the public trust doctrine beyond its limit. Today, PLF filed an amicus brief in yet another case of government infringing on beachfront owners’ rights: Chmielewski v. City of St. Pete Beach.

In this case, the City of St. Pete Beach took a right of access to the land around one family’s modest beachfront home without first buying it. Katherine and Chester Chmielewski bought their one-story beachfront home in the 1970s and raised their children there. They owned the property from the back of their home to the mean high water line. It was a peaceful place for the family. The only people who could access their beach were their neighbors in the subdivision. But after the City got involved, that all changed.

The City opened the Suntan Arts Center inside a private subdivision, landward and across the street from the Chmielewskis’ home. In 2003, the City renovated the center, put up signs directing the public to the beach, and cleared a private trail running from beside the arts center to the private beaches and a private sidewalk running next to the Chmielewskis’ home. The City rezoned the private beaches as a public park and held large public events at the arts center and private beach. As a result, the public began to treat the Chmielewskis’ property as public property, recreating there, and sometimes even having weddings or drunken parties. On top of that, some members of the public started taking a shortcut from the arts center—walking right beside the Chmielewskis’ home and into their backyard to access the beach.

Despite the Chmielewskis best efforts at asking the public to leave their property, they could not stem the tide. They finally sued after the City refused to take responsibility and stop the public invasion that it had orchestrated. When a quiet title action confirming their right to exclude the public did not convince the City to change its behavior, they brought a constitutional challenge. After a four-day trial, they won. But the City has appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

PLF’s amicus brief supports the Chmielewskis’ constitutional claims and addresses the City’s arguments. The Florida Constitution’s Takings Clause requires that government pay compensation when it causes physical invasions onto private property. That is exactly what happened here. Contrary to the City’s arguments that it should not be held responsible for trespassing by the public, the trial court found that the City authorized the public to enter the Chmielewskis’ property. In other words, the City took an easement for the public, which means it must pay for the taking.

On top of that, the City violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable seizures of homes and the area surrounding a home. Ordinarily, the Fourth Amendment requires the government to get a warrant or other court order allowing it to seize (i.e., “meaningfully interfere with”) protected property. But it did not do so here. Nor did the City offer a pre-deprivation hearing or commence condemnation proceedings. That means the City acted unreasonably when it authorized the public to invade the Chmielewskis’ property. The City claims that the public didn’t invade any private areas. But the evidence showed that prior to the City’s actions, the area around the Chmielewskis’ home and backyard were private, family areas. Hopefully, the Eleventh Circuit resists the City’s efforts to shirk responsibility for its actions.

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Chmielewski v. City of St. Pete Beach

The Chmielewski family owns beachfront property in the City of St. Pete Beach, Florida. The city owns an arts center inland and adjacent to the Chmielewski’s home. After the city built a trail and encouraged the public to traverse the Chmielewski’s land to access their private beach, the family sued the city for effecting a taking without just compensation and for violating the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unwarranted seizures. The trial court awarded the Chmielewski’s damages for the seizure and the loss in value to their private beach and their home as a result of the taking. The City appealed to the Eleventh Circuit and PLF filed a brief supporting the family’s property rights.

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